What to Expect for the Future of Protection in UN Peace Operations

A peacekeeper part of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) stands in the protection of civilians site in Bor. (UN Photo/Nektarios Markogiannis)

Over the last two decades, peacekeeping operations have refined, readjusted, and professionalized their approach to the protection of civilians (POC). The United Nations Security Council has supported this by progressively adopting more robust, precise, and prescriptive POC language in its resolutions to guide UN peacekeepers in the implementation of this critical task for the reputation and credibility of the UN. The development of POC as a core value and a priority mandate has, over time, led many peace operations to change their modus operandi, embrace more proactive postures, and enhance the integration of their civilian, police, and military components to respond more adequately to protection needs.

Looking ahead, the protection of civilians is likely to remain a central component of peace operations mandates—even in a context of great power competition and diminishing resources for the UN. Although member states are increasingly pushing back against established human rights norms and gender issues, POC is still a relatively consensual agenda in Security Council discussions. Given its plasticity, the POC concept has offered enough room for member states to agree on the need to protect civilians from the threat of physical violence where UN peacekeepers were deployed, but has also been the object of convenient politicization to advance other interests and justify robust, long, and multifaceted deployments.

This article offers a few areas and trends to consider for the future of protection in UN peace operations. It explores a series of potential developments that could affect the nature of protection threats, mandates, actors, and approaches in the coming decade.

More Diffuse, Complex Protection Threats 

Peacekeepers will certainly continue to face a variety of protection threats from both state and non-state actors, ranging from indiscriminate to systematic attacks against civilian populations, objects, and infrastructure, including killings, sexual violence, torture, abductions, and forced displacement. Over the coming years, these threats are bound to be exacerbated by emerging dynamics, including social unrest and divisions, violent opposition between governments and communities, the increased influence of new technologies and effects of the digital age, and the prevalence of infodemics, among others.

The rise of nationalism, xenophobia, and intolerance, in particular, may generate major protection threats, including in theaters where peacekeepers are deployed. By dividing communities, these trends can fuel violence committed by civilians against other civilians, and abuse related to vindictive attacks, lynching, and popular justice. Private actors, violent mobs, and radical non-state armed groups could become particularly prominent in violent clashes between communities, which are likely to overly affect specific groups—women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQI communities, migrants and refugees, journalists, community leaders or human rights defenders, for example.

These community divisions will probably coincide with deepened fractures and distrust between people and their governments. This may result in an upsurge in social unrest and violent protests, especially in urban areas. As governments seek to strengthen their control, a more repressive stance against protestors, insurgents, and “terrorists” has the potential to escalate into serious abuse and human rights violations. These disruptions are likely to be exploited by rival countries and a range of private spoilers seeking to undermine social cohesion and manipulate social grievances. Deceptive methods of warfare, as well as psychological and media warfare, already appear in the defense strategies of powerful states, and in the modus operandi of non-state armed groups. In this context, disinformation campaigns, media manipulation, sabotage, and cyberattacks will certainly become more pervasive in attempts to polarize communities and undermine the credibility, capacities, and reach of protection actors.

Technology, including AI, robotics, and automated weapon systems, will be key in these warfare tactics, and will give rise to new POC challenges and threats. Technologies can empower perpetrators by quickly disseminating misinformation and escalating calls for violence, disrupting civilian infrastructure, identifying and geolocating civilian targets, and facilitating the organization of attacks against civilians. They are expected to become a core characteristic of future conflicts in “grey zones,” where global and regional powers will seek to inflict damage with minimal physical presence and plausible deniability for the harm caused to civilians.

On the other hand, humanitarian crises induced or aggravated by climate change, natural and man-made disasters, pandemics, sanctions, and conflicts will continue to increase the vulnerability of civilian populations, adding to the complex web of protection challenges faced by UN peacekeepers on the ground.

Greater Politicization and Fragmentation  

POC mandates will probably continue to offer a convenient political narrative for future deployments, and to be used as an umbrella concept to cover a variety of national interests. For example, potential peacekeeping deployments to Venezuela, Cameroon, Niger, Yemen, Syria, the Philippines, or Myanmar, will certainly be motivated by various interests related to countering insurgencies and terrorism, stopping migration, and restoring “law and order” in areas of influence. In a context of peacekeeping missions increasingly supportive of host states and government functions, in particular, member states may wish to maintain “POC” to preserve a semblance of “people-centered” considerations.

In this context, the concept of POC will possibly be further questioned and reframed to fit different contexts and different interests. Protection mandates may both expand and fragment further to respond to national interests driving peace operations in different directions. Protection can expand in scope, and entail support to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, the restoration of “law and order” and crowd control, the management of migration flows, the protection of key civilian assets and infrastructures, and protection from cyberattacks.

POC mandates could also concomitantly fragment if smaller civilian-oriented missions are deployed with less resources and tasked with limited protection roles. The Council could hypothetically authorize some POC activities and not others, or invite the mission to focus on a specific tier of POC. Some missions, for example, could be mandated to protect civilians through political engagement or capacity-building to the host state, and not be authorized to conduct human rights monitoring and investigations. Others could be mandated to work on the protection of civilians without having a military component providing resources for “physical” protection.

Such developments might lead to “à la carte,” fragmented and modular POC mandates and approaches—which risks progressively detracting the current comprehensive and integrated approach to POC. If this trend materializes, missions also risk creating expectations that they will be unable to fulfill, as peacekeepers lacking the leverage of military capabilities and focusing on politics and unarmed approaches will hardly be able to stop major episodes of violence. 

A Complex Ecosystem of New Protection Actors

The range of actors involved in protection may also grow and diversify beyond the UN, making interventions more complex, susceptible to partiality, and competitive. Difficult UN peacekeeping drawdowns from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR) might lead regional or sub-regional organizations like the African Union (AU) to take on more proactive roles in protecting civilians. In addition to the development of European Union and NATO POC doctrines, several countries have also established their own policy frameworks for POC, which can lead to a patchwork of protection approaches in the field, and open more debates on the meaning, scope, and approach to POC.

The likely paralysis of the Security Council and the pushback against human rights within the UN may also encourage multiple state and non-state actors to rise and tackle peacekeeping and protection. Non-state actors, such as armed militias, local community groups, non-governmental organizations, and private economic actors and influencers, may also develop their own “protection” narratives and initiatives, that might differ from UN standards. In the post COVID-19 era, in particular, remote working arrangements and localized approaches will offer opportunities to strengthen the role of local organizations and the private sector. Tech companies, for example, might step in to help counter hate speech and “infodemics;” strengthen monitoring, early warnings and analysis; and offer innovative solutions to protection challenges.

National Ownership for POC

In the coming decade, the Council and Secretariat may be more inclined to emphasize national ownership and government buy-in for protecting civilians. This shift might emerge in order to satisfy member states’ preferences, respond to operational needs to conduct POC remotely through national actors, or facilitate exit strategies for UN peace operations. To that end, mandates might increasingly emphasize the third tier of POC (building a “protective environment”) and narrowly define new peace operations and their protection functions as a state-support endeavor. Given the likely retreat of the human rights agenda in the Council, there might even be a push to adapt the implementation of the human rights due diligence policy, and further emphasize collaborative measures with host-state actors in situations where they are committing violence against their own civilians, rather than confrontational positions.

Promoting and supporting national POC strategies and policy frameworks, and human rights compliance frameworks with national and regional actors (such as the human rights framework for the G5 Sahel Joint Force) may become standard activities for peacekeeping missions. Although there is significant value in having host states taking the lead in POC efforts, and in promoting national POC plans led by governments, there are also potential risks, especially where there is a crisis of popular confidence in government functions. In certain circumstances, a focus on national POC strategies and compliance frameworks may inadvertently empower predatory regimes, give an opportunity for the international community to turn a blind eye on protection crises, and limit the ability of UN peacekeepers to intervene when host governments are unable or unwilling to act. Missions may also risk being co-opted by governments asking support for migration control, counterterrorism, and crowd control.

Looking Ahead: New Skills and Modalities of Work

Even if POC is to remain a central feature of peace operations, the UN Secretariat should prepare for the growing politicization of the concept, the fragmentation of protection approaches, and the gaps in preparedness and skillsets that will need to be addressed to tackle protection needs in changing environments. New technologies, artificial intelligence, and cyber interventions are likely to give rise to new challenges, opportunities, and levers for protection practice in future operational environments, notably if “remote peacekeeping” becomes necessary. Revising collaboration and coordination arrangements, including public-private partnerships for the emergence of new protection actors that might co-deploy or complement UN operations will also be key. But most importantly, the coming decade will require UN peacekeeping to closely consider what POC means in order to navigate its positioning vis-à-vis state actors and local communities, especially in contexts of where distrust between governments and the people they represent is growing.

This article is part of a series exploring the future of United Nations peacekeeping.